Ion, Gate Theatre, London

Not enough corpses, not enough tragedy
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The Independent Culture

"But it didn't have a sad ending. Nobody was dead, nobody got killed." My 11-year-old is complaining as we leave the theatre. "And it was funny. There were actual jokes, Daddy! You said it would be dull and difficult and have lots of blood."

Having laboriously explained the rules and traditions of Greek tragedy on our way to the theatre, Ion had promptly confounded expectations. I had warned my daughter that it would be a mythological story with added personality, and that instead of just doing weird tasks (as they do in the stories), the characters would stop and ask why they had to perform these crazy tasks. That this was the beginning of the "Why me? Why now?" tendency in European drama.

And in that respect Ion comfortably conforms to type: Apollo rapes the virgin Creusa and she abandons her newborn. Now, 18 years later, she is Queen of Athens but infertile and coming to Apollo's temple with her husband to beg for a child. She secretly mourns her lost baby, not knowing that Apollo whisked him off to the temple where he has now grown into Ion, the priggish altar boy. When she mistakes Ion for her husband's illegitimate offspring, she sets about some do-it-yourself revenge. Along the way there are plenty of cunningly ambiguous prophecies and gorgon's blood poisons, and stern warnings that "there is no right of appeal for the victims of heaven".

So far, so good. But in every other respect Ion fails the test. At the end, nobody is dead; Apollo intervenes in time to effect reconciliations and reunite the family. It's enough to make any self-respecting 11-year-old, ready for her first full-blown Greek tragedy, ask for a cash refund.

Just to make it worse, in Stephen Sharkey's translation, it is witty and light and realistic. The genius of his re-rendering is that, without ever puncturing the tragic ambience, the genuineness of his characters' belief in gods and the whole mythic shebang (Creusa's grandfather was born from snake's teeth) the dialogue is poetic but modern, and the flow is always natural. Sometimes it sends itself up – Ion proudly sweeps the temple steps with "my divine duster" – but at other times it exploits the genuine humour of the situation.

In this it is well served by Erica Whyman's production, finding the reality of the characters rather than their simple desire to pontificate. Hermes slips on to the black and red stage as MC, trailing pocketfuls of feathers, half-dangerous and half-silly, a Delphic Joel Grey. As Ion, Sam Kenyon is agonisingly young, painfully sincere. And I'm not sure I have seen a chorus better handled; two of Creusa's ladies-in-waiting, genuinely talking to each other, asking questions, making suppositions, fearing the worst. Often the chorus stops the show, uselessly editorialising, but Melissa Collier and Lara Marland genuinely brought it to life.

But what did we end up with? I'm not absolutely sure. The story seems to touch on revenge and forgiveness and trust and belief, but never quite brings them out, never places the narrative responsibility into the characters' own hands. I'm glad I've seen it, and I'm glad I've seen it performed so well, but next time I want blood, I want corpses. I like my tragedy tragic.

To 1 June (020-7229 0706)

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